New Public Sphere
18 Maggio 2014

The New Public Sphere and Citizenship: the Role of Communication in the Making of the Social Bond.

The advent of complex modernity (Dominici 2005,2011) has triggered off many dynamics including a process of hypertrophic growth of the bureaucratic systems resulting from the strengthening of the old nation-states. This, in turn, has led to the gradual disintegration of the public space defined by the state of law as the “place” in which  all social demands, methods of political representation, and, above all, protection of rights, should find legitimacy and communal recognition.

The development process of newborn democracies, which are often culturally based on the concept of “popular sovereignty”[1] and on the lack of a definition of the relationship between the core values of freedom and equality (Rawls 1971,Dworkin 1978, Sen 1992, Bobbio 1995) has caused a radical politicization of the public sphere. This sphere, which expresses itself in political institutions and new social issues seeking public recognition and translation into laws, has continued – with its globalist character –  to take shape as an autopoietic system.

The public sphere’s operating space has thus been drastically reduced to the single issue of “representation”. Politics arguably enter into crisis as the public sphere increasingly takes on the form of maid of the power system. Given that, the level of mediation between the system and the life-world has disappeared (Habermas,1981) -  this mediation being based on communicative action capable of critically addressing social issues and opinions produced in the life-world  and civil society, and of fully legitimising them and rendering them publically relevant.

The digital revolution and the subsequent emergence of the Network Society (Castells, 1996, 2009), together with technological advancement and the cultural global change currently taking place, have caused a complexification of the praxis and, more particularly, of the unprecedented social interactions in the evolution of social systems. The deconstruction process of all scientific paradigms, systems of knowledge, and moral guidance (politics) – initiated and carried forward by twentieth-century thought  – is progressing at such a sustained pace that it has become extremely complicated to define and formulate interpretative models of reality.

The inevitable expansion of the (not only political) praxis is therefore forcing the scientific community into rethinking, if not actually reformulating, those conceptual categories – including the once absolutely central public sphere[2] – that for a long time enabled us to decipher socio-cultural changes.  And it’s precisely this expansion that is requiring scholars and intellectuals to make a significant effort to try and develop a more flexible paradigm of the concepts of the public sphere – with special attention to models and forms of communication – and of public opinion (Habermas 1962). This need – as has been said – is proving strategic for the advancement of democratic systems, perhaps even for their survival. What is at stake are not only the rights of citizenship (Balibar 2012), namely the access to information and knowledge, but also, and above all, the possibility of their being used more consciously and productively in order to affect policy decisions and the democratic dialectic.

This is a crucial issue that must be addressed at international level[3] because new information technologies are contributing significantly to the construction process of a new metanational public sphere[4] characterised by modes of innovative social interaction capable of shaking up the traditional logic of the democratic dialectic and representation, as well as the more general political arena  (now the global political arena)[5].

The Age of Connection, dominated by ambivalence and entropy, is increasingly becoming the communication society, a society founded on information and knowledge[6]  sharing. However, in this phase we are seeing an increasingly worrying welfare crisis which, caused by a complex change process in the labour market, is reshaping social stratification at local and global levels.

The current world-system, characterised by the radical uncertainty (Bauman, 2006) of its constituent subsystems, is introducing further variables that are instrumental in the production of new inequalities, inequalities which remain related to the ability to access, manage and produce the knowledge necessary for the exercising of citizenship rights. In fact, the so-called global risk (Beck, 1999; 2007) is requiring the old nation-states to devise and put into place more targeted strategies that have to seek the support of public opinions.

Communication is proving itself to be not only value added by the so-called reflexive modernization – or post-modernization (Inglehart, 1996) – but also the real ‘essence of contemporary man’. In this sense, several calls for in-depth analysis have emerged. In particular, the most important start point could be summarised thus: the new communication technologies and social networks, as well as gradually destroying (dis-intermediate) all the mechanisms of political and/or social mediation, have the possibly limitless power to extend the possibilities and opportunities of communication, facilitating the access to and exchange of information and knowledge between individuals (knowledge society). Put another way, the Great Network (Internet) is exponentially increasing the conditions for a capillary distribution of the capacity to communicate, calculate and store information. And this should not be underestimated – even if there are several criticisms and much critical analysis (Lovink, 2011; Morozov, 2011; Zuckerman, 2013) – as it’s the main indicator of the extraordinary (global) transformation of the dynamics and processes of economics, politics and social systems.

It should also be noted that this reticular world system is placing the Subject ‘in front of the uncertain world’ and is therefore requiring of him an increasingly high level of knowledge to be a true citizen. At this point, more critical and pessimistic observers note that the individual will be “alone” in facing the world, which appears to him as a virtual reality of a perhaps unsustainable weight. He will be “alone” with his choices which are illusory or preconditioned by whoever holds power or by a social group which has been reinvented or reshaped by the same global communication system. More dispassionate and optimistic observers, however, see in the multitude of communicative opportunities and the extension of the reachable spheres, the same number of chances for the individual to choose and make free choices of every kind – pragmatic and operational, technical or cognitive, psychologically autonomous, and choices that are morally evaluated from time to time – all choices, however, that are mediated through the values of the social reference group.

The particular focus of our analysis is on the quality of the existing communicative interactions which characterise the new public sphere, reflecting on communication as a social process of knowledge sharing and on the power relationships that characterise it. The ambivalence of the process of glocalization (Robertson, 1995) can’t help but have repercussions on individual social actors, on social bonds, and on the networks of social interaction (and, of course, on systems and organizations) in which self-awareness, rationality, cultural identities and, above all, the shared meanings that make society possible, are all structured –  as Mead (1934) has adequately demonstrated.

[1] “Popular sovereignty” as hegemony or domination of the majorities.

[2] For a reference to the introductory theme see W. Privitera (2001), a work in which the author looks at the different models of public spheres and critically reflects on the crisis of “popular sovereignty” in the era of globalisation.

[3] It is no coincidence that the most careful analysts and critics speak of transnational civil society and the post national public sphere.

[4] On the strategic issue linked to the creation of  a “European Public Sphere” see the official document of the Commission of the European Communities, White Paper on a European Communication policy, Brussels, 1.2. 2006.

[5] One thinks of the current, extremely articulate debate on the question of democracy and its possible “deviations” (the concept of “postdemocracy”), paradoxically linked to the greater opportunities (the concept of “polyarchy”) that democracy itself defines and determines. See in particular: L. Canfora (2004); C. Crouch (2000); R. Dahl (1998) J. Dunn (2005); G. Sartori (1992). For a clear and comprehensive introduction to the concept, please refer to the relevant entries edited by Norberto Bobbio in the celebrated  Dictionary of Politics, UTET, Torino (ed.1983 and 1990), edited by N. Bobbio, N. Matteucci, G. Pasquino .

[6] In this sense, we should be acutely aware that the so-called “knowledge economy” should necessarily be based on the sharing of this extraordinary intangible resource, a sharing that constitutes the fundamental pre-requisite without which the possibility of producing knowledge is denied.

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